In mid-July 2021, the Russian Attorney General’s Office declared the investigative news outlet Proekt an “undesirable organization,” effectively outlawing the publication. That same day, the Justice Ministry designated five Proekt journalists (including editor-in-chief Roman Badannin) as “foreign agents.” In the weeks that followed, state officials added nearly all of Proekt’s former reporters to the “foreign agents” registry, even designating some journalists who left the project long before its “undesirable” status. One of these people was Pyotr Manyakhin, a journalist in Novosibirsk, who is now challenging the Justice Ministry’s decision in court. The agency has now shared its objections to this lawsuit. Meduza breaks down the authorities’ peculiar logic.
On October 14, journalist Pyotr Manyakhin filed a lawsuit in Novosibirsk’s Zheleznodorozhny District Court challenging his designation by the Justice Ministry as an individual media outlet “performing the functions of a foreign agent.” Manyakhin named the ministry itself as the defendant in his legal challenge, arguing that the agency’s decision “violates his rights, Russia’s Constitution, and international conventions.” He also stated that he still hadn’t received any official notification from the state about his new status, though the Justice Ministry says it did, in fact, notify him.
“It wasn’t until now, after three and a half months, that they finally sent me a piece of paper stating that I am a ‘foreign agent.’ This is a serious violation that the court can examine. To get to the truth here, we’ll be filing a report with the post office,” Manyakhin told Meduza.
Two weeks after filing his lawsuit, Manyakhin received another document from the Justice Ministry that spelled out the agency’s objections to his legal claim (Meduza obtained a copy of the letter). Officials argue that the journalist’s conclusions are “unfounded and not compensable.” Also, for the first time, the ministry offered its official explanation for why it designated Manyakhin as a “foreign agent” to begin with.
The Justice Ministry’s evidence against Manyakhin includes three bank transfers in U.S. dollars. He made all three transfers himself, moving money between his own accounts.
Officials also cited the fact that Manyakhin retweeted a message in support of Meduza, after the news website (the one you’re reading right now) was added to Russia’s “foreign agents” registry in April 2021. Additionally, the Justice Ministry noted that Manyakhin authored an article about police officers in Novosibirsk torturing people, which the U.S.-government-funded and foreign-agent-designated news outlets Sibir Realii and Krym Realii published in September 2020.
Manyakhin told Meduza that he doesn’t expect Russia’s trial courts to weigh how well the Justice Ministry’s arguments actually conform to the “spirit” of the country’s “foreign agents” law, though he says he still hopes to challenge the agency’s decision in Russia’s Constitutional Court and in the European Court of Human Rights.
To sue the Justice Ministry, Manyakhin is leaning on a lawyer named Galina Arapova. She, too, is a registered “foreign agent,” as is her organization, the Media Rights Protection Center.
“By law, everyone can have accounts in any banks, use foreign payment systems, and freely choose their employers. If you’re a journalist, you can write stories for any media outlet and publish whatever you feel is important on your social media,” Arapova told Meduza. “In essence, what we have here is proof that the Justice Ministry is discriminating, insofar as nothing listed above is prohibited by the law, but it still leads to the designation of someone as a ‘foreign agent.’”
Arapova says the Justice Ministry is playing fast and loose with civil rights. “It’s like the agency is saying, ‘What did we do wrong? We did what’s written in the law, and since the law lets us do it, that means what we’re doing is right. Yes, we’re watching you and we’re meddling in your finances and your work, but we’re not breaking the law — that’s just how the law was written.’”
Speaking to Meduza, Arapova noted that the Justice Ministry obtained its information about Manyakhin’s banking records from “other state agencies.” The ministry has not disclosed who actually collected these data. “It’s like they’re saying that the only safe place left in Russia is working for the government and earning a living only from the public budget and only in rubles,” said Arapova.
Pyotr Manyakhin’s lawsuit against the Justice Ministry will go to trial on November 10.
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Translation by Kevin Rothrock